This past week Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima electoral list suffered two major setbacks. Taken together, the blows present the Likud with its first realistic chance to make a significant dent in public support for Kadima and to move much of that support to the Likud.
The first blow came with MK Binyamin Netanyahu's election as Likud leader on Monday. Netanyahu's victory cleared the way for the Likud to finally enter the general elections race. Before his election, Kadima had the political field to itself. If the Likud is able to unify behind Netanyahu, and if Netanyahu runs a strong and competent campaign, we are in for an extremely competitive electoral season.
The second hit was, of course, the mild stroke that Sharon suffered, which landed him in the hospital on Sunday evening. Sharon's health problems, which his stroke and subsequent hospitalization brought dramatically to the public's attention, dealt a serious blow to Kadima because now the issue of Sharon's medical condition will likely become a central issue in the campaign.
While a political leader's health is always an issue for his party, for Sharon and Kadima the matter is of crucial importance. This is so because in point of fact, Kadima is not a political party at all. It is merely a list of unpopular politicians who stand behind the enormously popular Ariel Sharon.
The results of the Likud primaries pit the two titans of Israeli politics against one another for the third time in five years. Indeed, it can be said that the competition between Netanyahu and Sharon has been the only real political contest in Israel since the downfall of Ehud Barak's government with the start of the Palestinian terror war in September 2000. Sharon won the first two rounds in 2000 and 2002.
By conspiring with Shimon Peres in 2000 to prevent the holding of general elections, Sharon effectively barred Netanyahu from running for office - thus paving his own path to succeed Barak while preventing the collapse of the political Left at the polls.
In November 2002, by padding the Likud's voter rolls with kibbutz members and refugees from the South Lebanon Army, and with the support of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, Sharon defeated Netanyahu in the Likud primaries. Although he had the advantage of incumbency, Sharon's victory was still remarkable in light of the fact that the party's rank and file supported him even though he had already abandoned the party platform by publicly supporting Palestinian statehood.
According to the polls, the Likud has absolutely no chance of winning the elections. And yet, to discern the Likud's real position as it enters the general elections race, we must ask a pivotal question: What is the basis for the wide public support for Kadima - a party that places among its leaders such despised political figures as Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik?
Kadima has two main sources of public support. First, with his strongman image, Sharon has convinced wide swathes of the public that he and he alone can ensure the security of Israel's citizenry. In so convincing the populace, Sharon has divested the Likud of its greatest asset: its reputation for being the political party best equipped to secure Israel's national security.
The second reason that Kadima is polling so well is Sharon himself. Sharon's many supporters, who are currently giving Kadima between 32-42 Knesset seats in opinion polls, are undaunted by the criminal investigations surrounding Sharon and his sons. They couldn't care less that his strong-armed political tactics make a mockery of Israel's democratic processes.
Sharon's supporters are moved by the sense that Sharon can get things done.
Sharon said that by the end of 2005 there wouldn't be one Jew left in Gaza and by golly, there isn't one Jew in Gaza today. Obviously Sharon's supporters do not care about the Israelis living in Judea and Samaria - tens of thousands of whom will likely be expelled if Sharon is reelected.
His supporters are non-ideological voters who simply trust Sharon's image as an accomplished leader who grabs the reins of power and rides on. For these voters, the status of Sharon's health is likely to be of critical importance.
During his hospitalization, Sharon's aides fed the public a steady diet of announcements of phone calls to his room at Hadassah Medical Center from US President George W. Bush and other world leaders, all wishing Sharon well.
To a degree, this spin, which emphasized Sharon's international popularity while making light of his serious medical problem, is very much in line with Sharon's governing philosophy as it relates to Israel's international and strategic position.
Since he took office, Sharon and his advisers have portrayed the status of Israel's relations with the US as one of unprecedented harmony. On a superficial level, this is in fact the case. But this surface tranquility masks its problematic cause. The appearance of smooth sailing in Israel's relations with Washington is the result of the unprecedented weakness of Israel's position in Washington.
This week Ma'ariv reported that IDF commanders are becoming increasingly disturbed by the Bush administration's meddling in the minutiae of the operation of Israel's passages with Gaza. The State Department consistently brushes off Israel's growing security concerns and intervenes on the Palestinians' behalf. This American interference not only constitutes a political blow to Israel's sovereignty, it also manifests a military blow to Israel's national security.
But there is nothing new here. Since taking office five years ago, Sharon has received Washington's support - such as it is - by abandoning Israel's national interests every time that they are challenged by the institutionally anti-Israel State Department. In every single dispute that has arisen over the past five years - from the Mitchell Report in 2001 to the road map in 2003 to the passages agreement Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rammed down our throats last month - Sharon has abandoned Israel's national security interests at every turn in exchange for public declarations of support for him personally by central Bush administration figures.
Sharon has succeeded in the domestic political arena by presenting the support he has received on a personal level to the public as if it were a national achievement. Israelis have been duped into believing that the trust Sharon demands of them has actually conferred some advantage on the nation when in fact, Israel has never been weaker than it has become under his leadership.
And as with the Americans, so too with the Palestinians. Sharon's success in basing his political fortunes on consolidating his image as a strongman has made it impossible for anyone to impugn his withdrawal from Gaza in spite of the fact that it has been a colossal disaster for Israel's national security. The Kassam missiles that now fall on Ashkelon meet with what can effectively be considered no Israeli response. The seeding of al-Qaida cells in Gaza has been strenuously ignored. And the Hamas takeover of key Palestinian institutions has been greeted by yawns all around.
Public sentiment, which Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been instrumental in directing, is marked by defeatism. As recently noted by Daniel Pipes, in a speech before the leftist Israel Policy Forum in New York last June, Olmert described the sentiment of the Israeli public thus: "We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."
The thinking behind this stunning statement and the public malaise it describes apparently is based on the view that since Sharon is a strongman and he's preaching surrender, it goes without saying that the public ought to behave in a cowardly and defeatist manner. This psychology goes a long way towards explaining the results of a Truman Institute poll published this week which found that half of Israelis support negotiating with Hamas.
Again, it should be emphasized that defeatism as a national strategy has worked for Sharon to date because the public trusts him.
In its election campaign, the Likud must focus its attacks on exposing the image of strength that Sharon and his political advisers have sold the public for the lie it is. For the sad truth is that during Sharon's tenure Israel's international standing has sunk to previously unknown depths. From a tactical threat at the beginning of Sharon's premiership, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Gaza, Palestinian terror has morphed into an existential challenge for Israel.
AS WELL, the Likud must make Sharon's health a central issue in these elections. From the contradictory reports on the cause and consequences of his mild stroke this week, it is impossible to know what his health status actually is. But it is obviously far from satisfactory. The doctors at Hadassah claimed that his stroke did not increase the likelihood that Sharon will suffer from future strokes. But according to New York-based neurosurgeon Dr. David Poulad, "this is simply untrue."
The fact of the matter is that Sharon's stroke indicates that there is a problem with his blood flow and such a problem constitutes a serious medical condition.
According to a number of reports, Sharon's stroke was caused by a blood clot in his heart. If this is correct it indicates that Sharon suffers from an irregular heartbeat. Again, according to Poulad, "Sharon's apparent heart condition increases the risk of future strokes as well as a host of other problems. If his heartbeat is irregular then he can suffer from blood clots anywhere in his body. The anti-coagulant medications that he was placed on during his hospitalization can themselves cause a whole host of additional problems, such as hemorrhaging."
People who have suffered mild strokes and are medicated with anti-coagulants do not generally have long or healthy life expectancies, Poulad concludes. Given that Poulad himself can only draw his conclusions from the fragmentary information made available to the public this week, he cautions that his views may very well be alarmist.
And yet, given that Sharon is basing his entire campaign - as he has his entire tenure in office - on the public's faith in him personally, the public must be provided with a clear understanding of how long he can be expected to continue functioning at his current level. The Likud must demand that Sharon's medical records be made public immediately.
In recasting the political map around his own personality, Sharon has demonstrated a level of political artistry the likes of which Israel has never seen before. There can be no doubt that he is a most formidable political foe. But he is not invincible.
If the Likud builds its political campaign on a two-pronged strategy of demonstrating the emptiness and failure of Sharon's strategic moves and underscoring Sharon's health problems - while positioning itself just to the right of the center of Israel's political spectrum - the Likud will succeed in hitting Sharon at his weak points while building on its own strengths.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.